Photo credit : Soumi Haldar
In its September 8 issue, Businessweek featured a story about ThinkTank Learning, a chain of San Francisco Bay Area tutoring centers that operate out of strip malls. The company was founded in 2002 by Steven Ma, a former hedge fund analyst who started the company with $2,000 of his own money saved from tutoring students, and a $15,000 loan. His first “center” was a desk and some phones in a 100 square foot office in Cupertino.

Ma, was born in Taipei and moved to California in the fifth grade, now brings in about 18 million dollars a year for his company. Essentially, Ma makes bets on student admissions the way a trader plays the commodities markets, summarizes Businessweek,

 “Using 12 variables from a student’s profile—from grades and test scores to extracurricular activities and immigration status—Ma’s software crunches the odds of admission to a range of top-shelf colleges. His proprietary algorithm assigns varying weights to different parameters, derived from his analysis of the successes and failures of thousands of students he’s coached over the years.”

The article gives an example. Ma’s algorithm predicts that a U. S.-born high school senior with a 3.8 GPA, an SAT score of 2,000 (out of 2,400), moderate leadership credentials, and 800 hours of extracurricular activities, has a 20.4 percent chance of admission to New York University and a 28.1 percent shot at the University of Southern California. These odds, it continues, determine the fee ThinkTank charges that student for its guaranteed consulting package: $25,931 to apply to NYU and $18, 826 for USC.

Is Ma’s business taking advantage of a population? It depends on your definition of taking advantage. Most of his clients are are Asian immigrants like himself, many of whom still have families living in their country of origin. He helps applicants and their families navigate the myriad criteria generated by applying to a university. He “reassures the bewildered, multigenerational audiences that top-ranked American universities aren’t nearly as capricious as they seem,” once you know their formula. To be sure, only the very wealthy or those willing to give up their life savings for their child can afford Ma’s services. 

And while ThinkTank serves a niche clientele, there are thousands of other college “counseling” businesses in the United States. The term “counseling” is a misnomer to me, because it often doesn’t describe a holistic approach to a college or vocational school that is the best environment for the youngster, but rather, a business that helps parents mold a student into the best possible candidate for the school they perceive as necessary for success in this world. If one Googles “college counseling,” one will need an entire afternoon to scroll through the endless advertisements for local and national help. One particularly bold one I found was called “The Ivy Coach,” and its website introduction goes right for the jugular: 

“Why live with regret? Why play these games? So you save some money by not working with a private college consultant? And then  your kid doesn’t get into Yale. Instead, he ends up at UCLA as an out-of-stater. So you end up paying a lot of tuition for a school that doesn’t have the cache of Yale. Seems like a poor investment strategy to us. Talk about a reality check. Every time your kid goes on a job interview and the interviewer sees that he went to Yale, do you know what his assumption generally is? That he’s smart. It’s quite the assumption to have in your back pocket. That’s not necessarily the case for UCLA students, even though UCLA is a terrific school. So if you choose to not invest with a good private college counselor (and there certainly are bad ones), just know that your strategy can backfire for many years to come! And that’s the cold, hard truth.”

My biggest wish for my children in the years to come is a nation that embraces the differences of each student, and places a premium on teaching children why it’s important to learn for the sake of learning, not just checking boxes for a particular class or university.  The “adult brain” isn’t formed until the age of 24 –– that’s two years past the point of graduation from undergraduate programs for most people. Very rarely do teens or young adults know “what they want to do in life” until they are closer to their late twenties or thirties or beyond. My second wish is for high school programs to teach students how to be adaptable –– that it is important to finish a course of learning to build basics, but also, how to take what one already knows and build from it with new experiences. My third wish for students today is for good health, both physical and mental, whereby they have peers that support them and vice versa, and get plenty of sleep for their growing brains. 

Maybe these are things that cannot be purchased, but as parents, we can demand them.

Authored By : Julia Bricklin, Picture By : Soumi Haldar 

Julia Bricklin is a mother of two kids studying in the elementary and middle school. When Julia sent in this article to us, we were so charged up, we decided to spend a week talking about different perspectives on education.